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Back in the high life again
Atlanta's loss allows the Lightning to go for Stanley Cup No. 2.
By TOM JONES
Published April 18, 2006
TAMPA - Late on the night of Jan.16, the road-weary Lightning dropped its bags in the lobby of a swanky Los Angeles hotel and headed somberly for a meeting room in the basement to hash out how the defending champions could let a season spiral out of control.
It had just been embarrassed by San Jose, and coach John Tortorella laid it on the line. Players spoke. Coaches spoke. No topic was off limits. No player was untouchable. And, in a way, it was the start of a meeting that essentially continued off and on throughout the rest of an up-and-down season.
The Lightning's 2005-06 regular season, depending on the game, was thrilling, confusing, disappointing, dramatic, rewarding, maddening and revealing. One thing it never was? Easy.
Until Monday night. The Lightning (42-32-6) clinched a spot in the playoffs for the third consecutive season and fourth time in its 13-season history without even lacing up its skates. Atlanta, the last team that could catch the Lightning, was eliminated with a 6-4 loss at Washington.
That means tonight's season finale against the Caps is only for seeding purposes. The Lightning will begin the playoffs most likely Friday or Saturday on the road against Carolina or Ottawa in a best-of-seven series.
"It doesn't matter how we ended up at this point. All that matters is that we're in the playoffs," center Brad Richards said. "We're happy to play anybody. After being in the playoffs for a couple of years in a row, you don't want to miss it. It's so much fun."
The season, however, could hardly be described as fun for the organization. After Christmas, the Lightning was never a threat to win its division because of a great start by Carolina.
Then as the season progressed, the Lightning struggled to find consistent goaltending and scoring. Not only was winning the division out of the question, but making the playoffs at all became an issue over the past two months.
Missing the playoffs a season after winning the Stanley Cup could have been a major setback not only to the team, but Tampa Bay as a hockey market.
"It would've been a disappointment," Tortorella said. "After all the trials and ups and downs, we felt we were a good enough team to make it. But it just goes to show you how difficult this league is and how hard it is to make the playoffs. Just because you have success or win it all one year doesn't mean you're a shoo-in the next year. I'm proud the players found a way. They deserve the credit."
The Lightning seemed to right its ship after the San Jose loss/L.A. meeting by going on a 10-2-1 run into the Olympic break. But then came a 1-5 stumble out of the Olympic break that made the rest of the season a nightly soap opera of watching scoreboards and playing crucial games. Making the playoffs was never a given.
"I never thought we wouldn't get in, but I never took it for granted," Richards said. "In the back of my mind, I thought, "We'll get it done.' But there have been some moments where we have made it hard on ourselves."
Veteran Tim Taylor said, "I guess at the odd time you think we might not make it. But it was more the other way around; that there was no way we could not make it. It was at those times, though, that we might have gotten a little complacent."
Finally, as the finish line of the season came into view, the Lightning played well in consecutive games against Carolina.
It picked up a valuable point in a shootout loss on Friday then won in thrilling fashion Saturday when Marty St. Louis scored with 10.7 seconds left in overtime.
"These last two games, we're starting to play like we know we can," Taylor said. "Maybe this is an omen for us. We started to step on the gas, and I don't think we'll let off the gas now."
The best part for Taylor and his teammates is knowing they will be driving right on into the playoffs.
"I'm really excited that everything is over and we're in the playoffs," center Vinny Lecavalier said. "But now we have to keep on going. We took it to another level to get into the playoffs, but we've got to keep on going now."